Woolfe Island

John Francis Maguire

Woolfe Island—Jimmy Cuffe—A Successful Irishman—Simple Pat as an Agriculturist—The Land Question in Canada—Wise Policy of the Canadian Parliament—Happy Results of a Wise Policy

THERE is an island in the St. Lawrence, forming the two channels, the English and the American, through which the majestic river flows from Lake Ontario to the sea. Woolfe Island—for that is the name by which it is known—is several miles in length, and about half as many broad. It is principally occupied by Irish Catholics, who settled upon it at different periods, not very remote. For a time the land was held partly by lease, and for a term of twenty-one years—a description of tenure altogether exceptional in a country in which freehold or fee-simple, in other words, absolute ownership, is almost universal.

In other countries a lease for twenty-one years might be regarded with favour, and under certain circumstances would be considered a security for mere outlay in cultivation. It is so in Scotland; but in America, where absolute and undisputed ownership is the rule, a tenure of this limited nature is rather a discouragement than a stimulus to exertion. And it may be remarked, that by proprietors of large tracts of land, who desire to see them occupied and cultivated, letting by lease is not much approved of; they prefer to sell it in lots, on such terms as may suit both parties, and possibly enable the person who sells to turn the purchase-money to other purposes. And when land falls into the possession of creditor or mortgagee, the new owner generally finds it more convenient and profitable to get rid of it by sale than to let it by lease of whatever term, and thus assume the responsibility and incur the risk incidental to the position of a landlord. The genius of the people, the very instinct of the community, is in favour of entire and unrestricted ownership, through which alone the forests have been turned into fields of grain and pasture, and America has been civilised and peopled.

The proprietor of a vast property in Woolfe Island determined to announce it for sale; and no sooner did he do so, than the Irish tenants put forth the most extraordinary energy, in order to become the owners of their farms. It seemed as if new life had been infused into them by the hope of possessing as proprietors the land they rented as tenants; and such was the success of their exertions that they, or the great majority of them, were enabled to purchase their lots.

As the island, with the exception of such portions of it as had been cleared, was covered with forest, like most of the land of Canada, the settlers of Woolfe Island had to undergo the ordinary hardships incidental to all similar efforts; but as they were not many miles from a fine town and a good market, they possessed advantages not usual with the genuine pioneer of civilisation, who buries himself in the depths of the woods, and is himself the author of everything that follows. Still the advantages of the thriving town and the unfailing market were not unattended with countervailing risk; for the nearness of the town offered to the settlers of the island temptations which many lacked the necessary fortitude to resist. It frequently occurred that the profits of a good season were sacrificed to the fascinations of boon-companionship, and the indulgence of a passion especially fatal to the Irishman. The evil was assuming alarming proportions, when, some dozen years since, an Irish priest—the Rev. Mr. Foley—resolved to grapple with it; and so powerfully and persuasively did he plead the cause of prudence and sobriety, so strenuously did he wrestle with the veteran drinkers—the 'hard cases,' as they were called—and such was his influence with the young, that he succeeded in a short time in enrolling 800 male residents, of all ages, from the vigorous stripling to the grey-haired grandsire, in the ranks of temperance. The result was magical. Soon there was not in all Canada a more prosperous or progressive settlement than that of Woolfe Island. The good priest died in the midst of his labours, and, as was customary, would have been buried in the Cathedral of Kingston; but so beloved was he by the people to whom he had been father and pastor, that they would not permit his honoured remains to be removed from the island; and the grave in which they rest is regarded with veneration by those who remember his holy life, and the zeal with which he watched over the temporal interests as well as the spiritual welfare of his flock. The islanders remain faithful to the advice of their pastor, and, as a consequence certain to follow from the avoidance of a fruitful cause of danger, they are happy and contented, and every year they are advancing in prosperity. The case of one of these settlers will illustrate that of many.

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America